Shark attacks account for just four or five deaths a year worldwide, on average. Still, any time we plunge into the ocean, the specter of Jaws and his finned friends looms large. So what can we do to lessen those rare, deadly encounters? Or, at the very least, to lessen our outsized preoccupation with them? The answer may lie in these funky wetsuits.
They’re the product of an Australian company called SAMS, short for Shark Attack Mitigation Systems. Founded by surfing entrepreneurs Hamish Jolly and Craig Anderson in 2011, the idea behind the endeavor is simple enough: Use science to design a safer wetsuit. That, of course, required the help of some scientists. So in early 2012, with financial support from the Western Australian government, they commissioned Professor Shaun Collin and Dr. Nathan Hart of the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute to lead the way. After some new research, the startup has introduced its first product.
Sharks, of course, make use of several senses in tracking prey, but sight becomes crucial when they move in to strike. Collin and Hart had just published research suggesting that sharks were cone monochromats, like whales and dolphins, and thus likely color blind. From those findings, they developed parameters for two designs: one to camouflage divers from sharks and another to repel the predators outright. Since they were colorblind, the researchers surmised, object detection would be based primarily on brightness contrast. So, for the camouflage suit, they determined a set of optimum reflectance spectra that would make the suit hard to spot under typical conditions in western Australian waters. It’s the same basic principle as military camouflage, just optimized for shark eyeballs.
The thinking behind the repellant wetsuit is a bit less sophisticated, scientifically speaking. “This design is based on the idea that most sharks don’t like to eat sea snakes,” explains Dr. Hart. “To adapt this concept for the wet suit, we provided SAMS with some parameters for the width of the bands based on the spatial resolving power, or visual acuity, of sharks, which determine the distance at which the shark can clearly see the bands.” Hart points out that eminent marine biologist Walter Starck proposed the sea snake guise as a viable one in the past, and has provided anecdotal evidence of its efficacy in the field. On the other hand, there’s George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, who told National Geographic that the design could have just the opposite effect: “That striped suit that is supposed to look like a lionfish is about as nice a thing as you can do to attract a shark, because of the contrast between dark and light.” Welp!
The takeaway is that there’s no scientific consensus on what, exactly, will deter sharks. And SAMS is very clear about the fact that they haven’t yet quantified just how effective their designs might be. Early tests, however, suggest they might be on to something. An initial round of tests, carried out at the Oceans Institute, showed that one of the SAMS products “was effective in preventing engagement of baited test materials by large predatory sharks, which subsequently attacked and devoured adjacent baited test materials in traditional black neoprene,” according to the company’s own recap. The Institute’s researchers are currently performing a formal analysis of the test video, which should give us a better sense of how the suits truly fared. (National Geographic was on hand to film some of the tests for a documentary coming out this summer.)
SAMS tapped original Quicksilver designer Ray Smith to translate the researchers’ findings into actual products; the first company to license the tech is an Australian wetsuit outfit called Radiator. Its new Shark Deterrent Range includes a model for surfers called the Diverter, employing the stripped, repellant pattern, and a pair with the camouflage effect, for divers, called Elude. All of them start at about $440.
If the SAMS-enhanced wetsuits do in fact deter sharks, that would be good. If they somehow attract sharks’ attention, that would be bad. But even if they don’t have much of an effect at all, that might not be the worst thing either. The perceived threat of shark attacks is far greater than the actual threat. A wetsuit that lends you some peace of mind, scientifically sound or otherwise, might not be a bad investment by itself.